Chasing Freedom: the Story Behind the Story

It all start­ed in Chi­na. Yes, you read that right. The ori­gins of my book about Har­ri­et Tub­man and Susan B. Antho­ny has every­thing to do with China.

Trip to ChinaLet me explain.

In 1988, I was asked to write a few mono­logues for the­ater pieces on Amer­i­can His­to­ry that would be per­formed in a series of the­aters in Chi­na. Lat­er, after the scripts were com­plete, I invit­ed sev­er­al friends to join me in audi­tion­ing for the cast. I had no aspi­ra­tions to join the cast myself, but my friends, who were all per­form­ing artists, cer­tain­ly did. As for me, I sim­ply thought the audi­tion process would be a lark and I looked for­ward to spend­ing a fun day with a few friends. And it was fun. And fun­ny. As it turned out, the joke was on me. None of my friends made the final cut for the cast, but I did! As a result, I end­ed up going to Chi­na lat­er that year. But, back to this story.


The his­tor­i­cal fig­ures I chose to devel­op mono­logues about for the show were Har­ri­et Tub­man, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, and Susan B. Anthony.

I was work­ing in library acqui­si­tions at USC at the time and was able to take advan­tage of the seem­ing­ly end­less col­lec­tion of books to be found in the Dohe­ny Library Stacks. I dove into my research with gus­to, and was excit­ed to learn that my cho­sen sub­jects were con­tem­po­raries, and that their lives fre­quent­ly inter­sect­ed. I found that bit of infor­ma­tion fas­ci­nat­ing, and won­dered just how deeply inter­con­nect­ed they were. In any event, I had no time to sat­is­fy my curios­i­ty, and so I lim­it­ed my research to the bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion I need­ed to know about each in order to write my short mono­logues. How­ev­er, I did have occa­sion to mull over cer­tain ques­tions that occurred to me: I won­dered what it would be like if Har­ri­et Tub­man and Susan B. Antho­ny had a con­ver­sa­tion. What would they talk about? What would it sound like?

After a time, I tucked those ques­tions away and, even­tu­al­ly, for­got all about them.

Talkin' about BessieIn the inter­ven­ing years, I wrote a book about avi­a­tor Bessie Cole­man, the first African Amer­i­can licensed pilot. This is a biog­ra­phy writ­ten in verse, and told from mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives. While the infor­ma­tion about Cole­man was fac­tu­al, the for­mat I cre­at­ed to tell her sto­ry was a work of fic­tion. Talkin’ About Bessie has enjoyed con­sid­er­able suc­cess, win­ning the Coret­ta Scott King Award for Illus­tra­tion and an Author Hon­or for the text.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the edi­tor began ask­ing me to con­sid­er writ­ing anoth­er book about a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. I told him thanks, but no thanks. Every year or so, he’d raise the sub­ject again.

Final­ly, in 2008, he asked if I would con­sid­er writ­ing a book about Har­ri­et Tub­man. I laughed, think­ing to myself that every­one and his moth­er has writ­ten a book about Har­ri­et Tub­man. Why would I write yet anoth­er? And so, again, I found myself say­ing thanks, but no thanks.

Chasing FreedomTwo weeks lat­er, how­ev­er, the idea I’d had way back in 1988 resur­faced. What about cre­at­ing a con­ver­sa­tion between Har­ri­et Tub­man and Susan B. Antho­ny? That would be a new and unique treat­ment of Har­ri­et’s sto­ry. Would my edi­tor be inter­est­ed in that idea? The answer, of course, was yes. And so, with that, I got busy.

I began gath­er­ing research mate­ri­als in Cincin­nati, Ohio, with a vis­it to the Nation­al Under­ground Rail­road Free­dom Cen­ter, the most exten­sive col­lec­tion of mem­o­ra­bil­ia from that peri­od. I spent sev­er­al days hunched over rare suf­fragette meet­ing notes by Susan B. Antho­ny, slave nar­ra­tives, and oth­er valu­able lit­er­a­ture rel­e­vant to the Under­ground Rail­road, the Civ­il War, and the suf­frage movement.

Nikki Grimes, John Parker HouseLat­er, I trav­eled to Rip­ley, Ohio, to search out some of the orig­i­nal homes that served as sta­tions of the Under­ground Rail­road, includ­ing the John P. Park­er House. After a week of research, I head­ed back to Cal­i­for­nia to begin the long process of por­ing over thou­sands of pages of biogra­phies, his­to­ries, and oth­er ref­er­ence work on my sub­jects, and the his­tor­i­cal peri­od against which their sto­ries played out. Bit by bit, the man­u­script came togeth­er. And now, final­ly, this sto­ry has gone out into the world!

I hope Chas­ing Free­dom brings this time in his­to­ry alive for my read­ers, and that they real­ize we are all part of one anoth­er’s story.